The University of Alaska Board of Regents approved conducting an extensive study of merging the University of Alaska Southeast with UA Fairbanks Thursday at their full meeting.
Regent Dale Anderson, who proposed the motion, emphasized the motion was not a decision on the merger itself, but simply a resolution to conduct an in-depth study of the option.
“Let me start by saying this is one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make as a regent,” Anderson, who lives in Juneau, said at the meeting. “This decision was not made in any haste, not without a great deal of thought for our faculty and staff and students.”
Citing years of declining enrollment, increasing numbers of online classes and significant cuts to the university’s budget from both the state and the COVID-19 pandemic, Anderson said regents had a fiduciary responsibility to at least examine the option.
Anderson said he “(chooses) not to look at this merger option as negative. The board is taking necessary actions to create a plan where we can live within our means.”
Regents Darroll Hargrave, Cachet Garrett, Andy Tueber and Lisa Parker objected almost immediately, with Garrett moving to dismiss Anderson’s motion calling it “outrageous.”
“This motion is far too complex and long,” Garrett said.
Anderson’s original motion contained provisions outlining what would be detailed in the study, but regents voted to strike that language saying that could be developed at a later date.
Other regents expressed concern with the motion’s timeline, which originally called for the findings of the study to be presented on Aug. 15. After some negotiation, with Garrett moving to extend the study’s due date to March 15, 2021, Regents agreed to examine the results of the study on Oct. 15, 2020.
The amended motion passed 7-4, with Regents Dale Anderson, John Bania, Sherry Buretta, John Davies, Mary Hughes, Gloria O’Neill and Karen Perdue voting in favor.
The nays were Garrett, Hargraves, Parker and Tueber.
Following the decision, UAS Faculty Senate President Heather Batchelder told the Empire she was extremely disappointed and felt the decision to merge the institutions was a foregone conclusion.
“It sounded like it was more than a cost-benefit analysis,” Batchelder said. “They should be looking at all the options and not just one option.”
Earlier in the meeting Batchelder gave a report to the regents in which she expressed opposition to the merger and frustration with the meetings intended for faculty to give feedback, saying they we’re short and unproductive.
“In the limited amount of time to give the superficial feedback,” Batchelder said, “no one even understood clearly what the options mean, most of the time was taken up with questions.”
Later in the meeting UA President Jim Johnsen agreed — with softer language — that the meetings had not been especially productive.
The University of Alaska has been warned before about shared governance, or inclusive decision making, Batchelder said, referring to a September 2019 letter from the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the organization that accredits universities in this part of the country.
That letter criticized UA’s transformation process at the time for lacking stakeholder involvement and transparency.
The letter also called for “clarity around the authority, roles, and responsibilities of the University of Alaska System and its respective institutions and their leadership.” Batchelder said that has not been done.
Regents in favor of the study emphasized their duty to carefully examine a range of options, even those which might be difficult, but maintained that despite any restructuring, UA would still provide education for Southeast.
“If it means UAS is going away, as a regent, I would never do that,” O’Neill said. “If we do a bit of restructuring, how we can expand opportunity in Southeast, and not just be in a place and looking at where the structure is today.” Anderson said his main goal throughout the whole process was to realize the construction of an ocean-side laboratory at the former Auke Bay Marine Station.
“We could create the most incredible fisheries facility in Alaska,” Anderson said, “as a collaboration between Fairbanks and Juneau. We already have a UAF doctoral program housed at UAS. We have such an opportunity on that piece of property to build a world-class fisheries facility.”
Anderson said he was even willing to make the case for the study before Southeast communities which have voiced strong support for keeping UAS independent.
“I can wear a flak jacket and go to these communities,” Anderson said. “We never know what kind of ideas will come out of these round-table discussions.”
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.